Cal-Stanford stagger into very different Big Game on Friday

This Big Game will be drastically different for so many reasons.

California and Stanford both come into the rivalry matchup with both teams winless for the first time. They're also playing on a Friday in another first, just the third game for each team when it should be the fourth.

The teams have previously dealt with cancellations because of coronavirus, the Cardinal losing out on playing last week's scheduled home opener with Washington State while the Golden Bears will finally get to play their first game at Memorial Stadium after the Nov. 7 opener didn't happen.

“We love our fans and we wish that they could be out at the games and enjoying being at the stadium and being around their friends and family as well,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said. “It’s just one of those things that none of us have control over right now to a degree and so we understand that. We understand people are making sacrifices and we want to be maybe a part of their life that brings them some joy and by how we play giving them something to cheer for. Obviously, the Big Game means a lot to so many people.”

Cal hopes to make it two in a row after the Bears took home the coveted “Axe” trophy last season for the first time in a decade by beating Stanford 24-20. The Cardinal are now 8-1 in the Big Game under 10th-year coach David Shaw.

Stanford senior offensive lineman Foster Sarell said last year's loss stung.

“The standard that’s been set here, we just beat Cal,” he said. “So losing to them it hurt me pretty good. ... We’ve got to reverse this deal.”


It all feels strange for Wilcox: No Thanksgiving team meal, just a grab-and-go box for the players to get them fueled up for Friday. Wilcox has been focused on a strong week of practice as his top priority rather than all the challenges of a short week with a holiday, too.

At Stanford, Shaw said it felt like rivalry week “once we started practicing.”

“We’ve got enough guys that played in this game a few times and regardless of not having fans in the stands know how emotional this is,” Shaw said, “and know that we have a trophy on the line.”


The Axe — currently kept by Cal in a safe, confidential location — will be on display on an easel in the stands, according to Cal spokesman Herb Benenson. The exchange will look different after the game given pandemic safety protocols, with fewer members of the Axe committees involved.


Stanford quarterback Davis Mills has just one game to his name so far this season after he was forced to sit out the Nov. 7 opener at Oregon because of a coronavirus testing protocol mistake. He quarantined until the conference acknowledged the mistake and cleared Mills and three others ahead of a 35-32 loss to Colorado the second week.

Mill’s 327 yards passing were the second-most of his career, but Stanford is striving to play better after halftime.


Special teams mistakes were glaring last week for Cal. Coverage and protection issues led to the problems.

Nikko Remigio’s 88-yard punt return in the first quarter got called back on an illegal block, then a holding penalty negated a 90-yard kickoff return in the third.

“If it was one thing it would be much simpler to address during the game, we just had kind of the one thing leading to the next,” Wilcox said.


Tightwad Hill, long a popular viewing place for those without a ticket because you can see down into Memorial Stadium from Charter Hill, will be off limits for those hoping to still steal a glimpse of a game with no fans.

“We know that our fans want to support and cheer on the Golden Bears this season, but we also want everyone to express their enthusiasm responsibly,” Cal said in a statement. “We call on fans to continue to protect the health of our community by wearing face coverings and maintaining physical distancing. Adherence to these policies has helped keep the spread of COVID-19 low in our area, including on campus and among our Cal Athletics population.”

Shaw realizes how disappointing all of this is for fans. His own family would love to be there.

“I feel bad for those people that love to watch live games, as opposed to watching them on TVs and devices,” Shaw said. “Because live sporting events are outstanding. They're community-based and it's one of the many things that we all are missing out on.”